Solid evidence for Mediterranean diet health benefits

Want to be thinner and healthier, with much less risk for disease?  Go meatless.  That’s according to information presented at the recent International Congress on Vegetarian Nutrition.   While a particular Mediterranean diet study from Spain is getting much of the attention this week, almost any study of vegetarians ever done has demonstrated health benefits.

The Spanish study is especially remarkable because it was stopped ahead of schedule for “ethical reasons”.  Normally when a study is halted ahead of schedule for ethical reasons, it’s because something about the intervention or treatment turned out to have adverse effects on the study subjects.  Not in this case.

The study involved 3 diet groups:

  1. low fat American Heart Association-type diet
  2. Mediterranean-style diet emphasizing fresh vegetables, fruit, fish, whole grains with little meat or dairy PLUS 30 grams (about 1/3 cup) of nuts/day (a combination of walnuts, hazelnuts and almonds)
  3. Mediterranean-style diet emphasizing fresh vegetables, fruit, fish, whole grains with little meat or dairy PLUS 50 ml virgin olive oil/day (about 10 teaspoons).

None of the groups were expected to restrict calories.

Diet analysis showed that the subjects on the 2 Mediterranean-style diets were eating fewer carbs, more fat and more olive oil, more fruit and more legumes than the AHA diet group.  It became apparent that the risk for stroke was so dramatically reduced — 49% — in the Mediterranean diet groups that it would be unethical to keep the AHA subjects on their lower fat/higher carb diet any longer.  In addition to the lower stroke risk, the Mediterranean diet subjects had lower blood pressure and better blood glucose and lipid measurements.

So what can we conclude?  In fact, it’s hard to pinpoint just one food or nutrient, since the Mediterranean diet is so different from the conventional low fat American Heart Association diet:

  • higher fat, especially plant fats and monounsaturated fats
  • higher fiber
  • higher in nutrients and antioxidants from plants like vegetables and legumes
  • lower in simple carbohydrates
  • lower in saturated fats
  • lower meat and dairy intake
  • much higher intake of nuts, fish and olive oil

While the Mediterranean diet isn’t necessarily meatless, it does de-emphasize red meat.  A meatless Mediterranean meal plan, full of nuts, legumes and some fish or yogurt would be easy to do.  Here are some examples:

Breakfast: whole grain cereal or toast, yogurt, fresh fruit; a wrap with sautéed vegetables, potatoes and melted cheese; nut butter on toast or bagel with juice

Lunch: pita bread, hummus and raw vegetables; a big green salad with nuts and grated cheese, bread on the side; vegetable bean soup with bread and fresh fruit with yogurt; cheese pizza with plenty of vegetables on top; peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

Dinner: grilled fish with vegetables and potatoes; sauteed vegetables with tofu and rice; bean chili with corn bread; burritos with refried beans and cheese; pasta with vegetable marinara and grated cheese; risotto with greens or peas.

Snacks: raw or roasted nuts, fresh fruit, raw vegetables, whole grain crackers or flat bread with nut butter

Just remember, when cooking or making salad dressing, using good quality olive oil.  Olive oil is part of the Mediterranean diet health equation.  It adds flavor and helps control appetite by making the food more filling and satisfying.  Mediterranean-type eating isn’t hard to do, and making it meatless is pretty easy.  Your Meatless Mondays can be even healthier if they’re Meatless Mediterranean Mondays.

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